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The use of Symbolism and Description in the Novel

When the general public studies and analyzes fiction, the plot, exposition of characters, climax, and resolution seemingly serve as the “critical” elements highlighted in its evaluation. Provocative literature, however, employs several less predictable but arguably more poignant characteristics. Description and symbolism flesh out the plot and characters, adding depth and form rather than mere shape and matter. Margaret Atwood’s subtle use of diction, imagery and allusion in her novel The Handmaid’s Tale lends dimension and realism to a dystopian society. Through her subtle use of the titles of the cassette tapes, Atwood alludes to the moral foundations of the Republic of Gilead, and thus displays her linguistic prowess. Several tapes bear the titles of “Folk Songs of Lithuania” and “Mantovani’s Mellow Strings,” which represent both the return to tradition and modesty pursued in this society. Furthermore, “Elvis Presley’s Golden Years” hearkens to the controversy of sexuality and society’s role in its censure. As an assimilation of the two, “Boy George Takes It Off” and “Twisted Sisters at Carnegie Hall” represent the question and clarification of traditional gender roles as a response to the pop-culture hysteria of the 1980s. These titles, in addition to instances in the novel categorized beneath them, attest to Atwood’s broad scope of knowledge and meticulous attention to detail.

Without divulging a single note or melody of a Lithuanian folk song, cursory research reveals that such compositions have roots in tradition, similar to the mandates of Gilead. Defined as songs “handed down from generation to generation” amongst “a common people,” folk songs represent the continuation of ritual and values throughout an evolving society (“Folk Song”). Lithuanian folk songs, more specifically, highlight “tradition and spirituality, celebrating heritage amidst and industrialized world” (Institute of Cultural Partnerships). Similar to this genre of music, the Republic of Gilead and its regulations find roots within tradition and religion. In fact, the inspiration for the institution of handmaids stems from the Bible-the ultimate document of tradition. The Red Center, officially entitled the Rachel and Leah Center, hearkens back to the Bible wherein Rachel gives her maid Bilhah to “bear upon [her] knees, that [she] may also have children by her” (Genesis 30: 3).

The very system that dictates the lives of Offred and the others is rooted in the tradition of the Bible. Furthermore, the jargon of Gilead establishments likewise stems from this reverence for religious customs. When conditioning the women for their new roles as reproductive vessels, the Aunts chant the Beatitudes, hailing that “blessed are the meek” (Atwood 89). Through song, prayer and rite, the Beatitudes remain an indoctrinated element in any Christian education, thus becoming a form of religious tradition. During the Ceremony for reproduction, the Commander reads aloud from the Bible and “ask[s] for a blessing and success in all [the] endeavors,” thus transforming sexual intercourse into a religious process (90). The mere prevalence of religious (or religious derivative) terms, such as soul scrolls, prayvaganzas, salvaging, and Jezebel, littered throughout the text amplifies the religious and therefore traditional tone of the novel. “Folk Songs of Lithuania” does not merely act as a title for a collection of tapes, but it also symbolizes Gilead’s pursuit of tradition and religion in a modern society.

Closely related to a return to tradition highlighted by the folk songs, “Mantovani’s Mellow Strings” also represent a celebration of classical and modest values amidst a chaotic world. Annunzio Paolo Mantovani composed “soothing instrumental music” and found vast success internationally from the 1950s until his death in the 1980s (Slonimsky). During this dynamic era spanning rock and roll, disco, and pop music, this classical orchestral musician managed to garner several gold albums and sell millions worldwide. Often categorized as “background listening,” Mantovani’s music offered a soothing alternative to the music of the times (Slonimsky). Gilead, like Mantovani’s mellow music, promotes modesty and simplicity. In pre-Gilead days, love, passion, and violence ruled unchecked. Women subjected themselves to utter misery and “starved themselves thin or pumped their breasts full of silicone” to suffer the “indignity” of courtship (Atwood 219). Husbands would abandon their wives and children or “stay around and beat them up” (219). Fear emanated women’s lives: fear of abandonment, fear of sexual predators, fear of being killed (226).

The founders of Gilead recognized these miseries and attributed them to unrestrained emotions and impulses. Therefore, to abolish such problems, modesty and simplicity became law in the new society. Society rules that women’s (handmaid’s) speech be stripped of emotion and restricted to “praise be” and “blessed be the fruit” to avoid any temptation to form bonds (19). Women’s “modest apparel” now reaches from neck to floor, often covering their heads with veils, to inhibit them from inspiring lustful feelings among the men (221). Impulses and love no longer act as the driving force to sexual activity; rather, reproduction alone justifies sex. In a society where “love is not the point,” women are free to “fulfill their biological destinies in peace [and] with full support and encouragement” (220). Convicted sexual predators meet violent ends in a society that no longer tolerates extreme and immoral behavior. Unmarried men may have no source of pleasure for fear that their morals be undermined. This return to modesty and moderation draws the parallel between Gilead and “Mantovani’s Mellow Strings.”

As a challenge and excuse for to Mantovani’s call for modesty, Atwood includes “Elvis Presley’s Golden Years” as another symbol for the moral foundation of Gilead. Infamous for his 1956 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Elvis “the Pelvis” Presley stirred controversy over sexuality and society’s role in monitoring it. Due to his provocative pelvic gyrations on prime time television, the cameraman resolutely held the camera above Presley’s waist in an effort to censor the singer’s performance. Despite the reluctance from adults, Elvis was embraced by a generation of more sexually liberated youth. The conservative nature of Gilead and its reverence for the creation of life caused the leaders to censor sexual activity by ruling that sex exist solely for the sake of reproduction. With this mandate came the end of the “pornycorners” and “feels on wheels” programs (210). Sexuality likewise became forbidden. Once seen as an instrument for pleasure, Offred’s body appears “shameful, immodest” to her because she sees herself merely as a womb or reproductive vessel (63).

Although society indoctrinates her sub-human and emotionless status, Offred manages to escape this mindset, if only temporarily. As she passes two guards “who aren’t yet permitted to touch women,” Offred taunts them with the sway of her “hips a little, feeling the full red skirt sway” around her (22). First feeling slightly ashamed, Offred feels overcome with a sense of power because her masters “will suffer” for “they have no outlets” (22). They must feel the physical discomfort of censured sexuality. Although often criticized for its far right political and moral standards, Gilead does not stand alone in its regulation of sex. Throughout the novel, Offred’s mother stands as the archetype for feminism and political activism. Even liberals, however, enforce restrictions on sexual liberation. As a protest to pornography, Offred’s mother and her peers burn piles of magazines depicting women “hanging from the ceiling by a chain wound around her hands” (38). Although some may deem this display of sexuality as obscene, the women in these photographs appear to embrace their sexuality and manipulate it for a profit. Wary of unrestrained sexuality, the leaders of Gilead, like the people who censored Elvis, stifle and restrict sexual liberty in an attempt to preserve their society’s morals.

Like Elvis Presley, Boy George and Twisted Sister became icons of a musical generation-not only because of their songs but also for the controversy they incited. Boy George, a member of the Culture Club, unsettled the foundation of traditional male-female roles. As a society having barely adjusted to the sexual revolution of the 1970s, people were then expected to accept the gender revolution of the 1980s. An open homosexual transvestite, George flagrantly ignored and challenged convention. Similarly, Twisted Sister belongs to the genre of “Eighties Hair Band”-a breed of musicians noted for their long, teased hair and rock ballads. This band, however, took a step further in their personas by wearing thick, pronounced, and colorful make up. Although their lyrics and sexual preferences were decidedly heterosexual, their gender-deceptive appearance shocked audiences.

Although society tolerated such behavior in the pre-Gilead era, leaders in Gilead removed any uncertainty of gender roles by implementing strict policies governing men and women’s positions. Gileadian women must submit themselves to the service of men and country. Once-powerful women like Serena Joy gave “speeches about the sanctity of the home, about how women should stay at home” (45). Titles such as “Wife,” “handmaid,” “Offred,” and “Martha” restrict their roles within the home to positions of servitude. Serena Joy becomes part of a collective group known as “the Wives,” defining her as property of her spouse. Handmaids serve society and their households to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (88). The titles of the handmaids themselves (“Offred” or “Ofglen”) combine the word “of” with the name of the commander. Women in this society do not possess the luxury of a first name but rather become the property of a man. Marthas fall victim to the stereotype of women as maids. Their responsibility is to tend to the manual needs of the household: cooking, cleaning, and serving.

Essentially, Prayvaganzas embody the standards of male and female roles: “women’s prayvaganzas are for group weddings” and the celebration of domesticity, whereas “men’s are for military victories” and the celebration of conquest (220). While the titles of the women place them as subjects of the men, the men’s titles imply a sense of honor and nobility. The Commander, by his name alone, adopts the role of leader and guide. Likewise, the “Guardians” watch over the women with a sense of authority and domination. Not only do the men assume respected statuses, but they are also placed in positions that govern over the women. Furthermore, Offred attests that, although “household disciplines” are “women’s business,” “there’s no doubt about who holds the real power” in the society-the men (136). Fighting against the blurred gender roles of Boy George and Twisted Sister, the Republic of Gilead establishes rigid laws governing men and women and their social status.

Through her subtle nod to the music of her generation, Atwood weaves the thread of Gilead’s foundation throughout the entire novel. Her use of these specific song titles affirms Atwood power over language and imagery. Through the cassette title “Folk Songs of Lithuania,” she highlights Gilead’s return to tradition and religion. “Mantovani’s Mellow Strings” offers a modest contrast to the chaos of modern music like Gilead offers a modest (emotional moderation) contrast to the chaos of modern society. “Elvis Presley’s Golden Years” strikes a chord with Gilead and society’s censorship of sexuality. Gilead’s reaction to individuals represented by “Boy George Takes It Off” and “Twisted Sisters at Carnegie Hall” entails a detailed and rigid definition of gender roles in society.

Beyond this analysis, however, the song titles act as a thread woven throughout the novel-a thread that embodies how elements of the past influence the state of the present. Gilead exists as a backlash to previous generations’ treatment of sex, reproduction, and the environment. The status of the world in 2195, even if only through the topics its people discuss, relies upon the existence of Gilead. Therefore, these songs connect the readers to the pre-Gileadian people (because of the songs’ existence), Gileadian people (because of the songs’ connection to the tale) and the people of 2195 (because of their study of Gilead). Neither time nor music can be isolated-the present relies upon the past.

Works Cited

Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. New York: O. W. Toad, Ltd, 1986.

Slonimsky, Nicolas. “Mantovani.” Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians. 2001.

Biography Resource Center. Galenet. Farmington Hills, Michigan: Thomas Gale. 18 Nov. 2004 <http://galenet.galegroup.com>.

“Traditional Lithuanian Folk Songs.” Institute for Cultural Partnerships. 2003. 18 Nov. 2004

http://www.culturalpartnerships.org.

http://dictionary.com

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